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As Game of Thrones draws to a close, and a new Amazon Lord of the Rings TV series awaits, J.R.R. Tolkien is sure to return as the king of fantasy (if he ever even left). Despite being dead now for nearly 46 years, Tolkien created, in Middle-Earth and the stories that take place there, a rich, vivid mythology that has ensured his immortality.
Many people first came to appreciate Tolkien’s work because of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy in the early 2000s. I was one of them. Only eight years old when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I was not allowed to see either it or its sequel in theaters (though I did catch them later on DVD). But when my parents said they would let me see The Return of the King in theaters, I decided to read all of the books in the trilogy before the movie came out so that I would appreciate it properly. Even at age 10, I recall getting lost–in the best possible way–in the epic and fully realized world of heroism and mysticism that Tolkien had created. Seeing the last movie in theaters remains one of my best-ever theatrical experiences, and it confirmed my status as a Tolkien fan.
Looking for more ways to deepen my fanhood at the time, I came upon The Silmarillion, which I have now had the chance to discuss on an episode of the Legendarium Podcast. Described to me as the ‘Old Testament’ of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion gave the backstory to which the more famous trilogy is the culmination: the creation of the world, the early struggles between its gods, the plight of the elves, the coming of men and dwarves (and their own trials), etc. Delighted that there was more material to read, I dove right in…only to crash on a rocky shoal of confusing names, excessive detail, and quasi-poetic prose that seemed straight out of some ancient tome. I got only a few dozen pages in before giving up on The Silmarillion.
Only recently, as the excessive cultural cachet of Game of Thrones has turned me into a rabid anti-Game of Thrones reactionary, did I make myself go back and finish The Silmarillion as part of my first full rereading of all of Tolkien’s most popular work, also including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Rereading The Silmarillion, I could understand why, as a 10-year-old, I found it so daunting. The names were still myriad, and often confusing; the stories abounded, intersecting in ways sometimes unclear to me; and the prose had the same ancient tome quality that I recalled from my youth.
Yet these were far more minor complaints this time around. While 15 years ago, they kept me from getting lost in the work as I did in Lord of the Rings, now they could barely restrain my enjoyment of it. For The Silmarillion is a true epic, the product of a single mind (two if you want to count his son Christopher, who compiled and edited what his father never completely finished). Usually, epic traditions are the products of entire cultures and many authors, assembled over centuries or more. But in preparing a backstory for The Lord of the Rings (which–importantly–was never the focus of Tolkien’s writing, but rather the bulky bottom of the iceberg that allowed him to tell the tiny top of his most famous story), Tolkien just decided to create such a mythology of his own accord within a discrete period–a stunning achievement. Sure, others have followed his lead since. Yet many of them have gotten too lost in their creations, too high on playing god, to produce a work that also contained transcendent themes (or ended!).
For though The Silmarillion is an epic, of gigantic scope and scale, it is also strongly driven by individual actors and choices. Pride, arrogance, fate, hubris, irony, mortality–those all-too-human forces–play out among a cast of often larger-than-life characters nonetheless subject to them.
Indeed, it is hard for me to explain how, exactly, but The Silmarillion seems not merely like the mythic creation of its author, but rather like a window into an entire other tradition, heretofore unknown. Something about the way it was written strongly suggests that what we have is actually a translation from another language, now long forgotten, and that what we are reading pales in comparison to the actual story, now long disappeared. This is not to say The Silmarillion is a bad work; rather, that in depicting its own rich mythology, it successfully conveys a sense that what actually happened was somehow even grander than what we are reading. It is, at times, hard to believe all of this came from the imagination of one man. Tolkien himself felt similarly. He wrote that, in creating his legends, he “…always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing.’”
The most compelling reason for the more casual Lord of the Rings fan to read The Silmarillion, however, is that it puts everything in Tolkien’s more famous work in context. It deepens one’s understanding of what happens there, and answer some questions about where some things came from. It also instills an appreciation for how, in Tolkien’s understanding, everything in The Lord of the Rings is merely a less impressive imitation or centuries-old echo of the ancient struggles depicted in The Silmarillion, a sort of “there were giants, in those days” aesthetic that often goes underappreciated in Tolkien’s immortal work.
At any rate, if you want to hear more from me (and others more qualified) about Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, check out my appearance on the Legendarium Podcast.